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How Should the U.S. Fight Air Security Threats?

BY Lea Winerman  December 28, 2009 at 4:57 PM EDT

Airport screenings; AFP/Getty

Where should the U.S. focus its efforts to keep up with air security threats?

Answers have been edited for space and clarity.

Richard Bloom

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Professor of Terrorism and Security Studies, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, Ariz.

Given that there’s no way to ensure 100 percent security, the question becomes which security measures warrant precious dollars.

One focus needs to be on intelligence: collecting, analyzing, producing, and transmitting information about threats — who is targeting aircraft, where, why and how — in a timely and secure fashion. Without adequate intelligence on threats, security authorities are largely flying blind when developing and implementing security measures.

Another focus should be on the right security mix of looking for bad people (e.g., terrorists) or bad things (e.g., explosives). Looking for bad people involves not only traditional intelligence methods but also new data mining techniques and behavioral recognition procedures. Looking for bad things again involves not only traditional intelligence methods but also technologies geared to identify physical characteristics of various weapons and explosives.

We also need to focus more on psychological issues. The morale and performance of security personnel would improve with higher pay, better training in dealing with low-probability events, and overall better human resource management.

The issues of security versus privacy needs to be better handled by our political leaders so that one doesn’t needlessly hurt the other.

Finally, more controversially, a mass psychology wherein U.S. citizens and residents expect a risk-free country and will not tolerate casualties is tailor-made for terrorist success. Terrorism is ultimately psychological in nature, because its ultimate targets are not those who are killed, but those who become aware of the killings.

Anthony Fainberg

Former Program Manager for Explosives and Radiation Detection at the Department of Homeland Security

We must raise security requirements for flights INTO the U.S. at least to the level of security within the country.

Most recent threats have involved passengers who bring explosives aboard aircraft originating outside the U.S., including the attempt out of Amsterdam on Christmas Day this year, the London bomb plot (against U.S. aircraft) in August 2006 and the Richard Reid incident out of Paris eight years ago.

Unfortunately, since its birth, TSA has apparently not realized the gravity of the overseas threat and has not focused very much on protecting against such paths of attack. What needs to be done immediately is to deploy standard off-the-shelf equipment that is in place at airports across the US: trace explosive detection equipment, which can easily detect PETN as well as a panoply of other explosives.

The devices, which detect traces of explosives on sample swabs, are inexpensive, simple to operate, effective and have been in use for over a decade. The U.S. should require that for flights inbound to the U.S. at least a selected subset of passengers is screened with such sampling devices (swabbing hands, pockets, baggage handles and latches, etc.).

For the future, millimeter-wave imaging systems may be of use to look for contraband hidden under clothes. These do still have some privacy issues, but those can probably be resolved. Beyond that, Terahertz (very short radar-like waves) detection and imaging is a possible technology of the future, and needs some more research effort before being usable in the field.

The good news in that the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Laboratory is fully cognizant of the states of technology in this area as well as operational issues. They are a major, world-class asset that DHS can use.

But the important, quickest solution is to focus existing resources where the threat exists. Screening passengers who board inbound aircraft from other countries, with currently available equipment, is an obvious and practical first step.

Larry Johnson

Former CIA Analyst and State Department Counterterrorism Official; CEO, BERG Associates, LLC

I think number one, we need to do what we are doing overseas, which is step up work with intelligence and the operational side of the house. There needs to be better intelligence. Right now, the military is the only organization that has fused intelligence with operations. The CIA has not done that. The FBI is not doing that. We’ve had significant success here. So fuse intelligence analysis with field operations.

Number two, we need to be proactive overseas.

And number three, we need to deploy the trace and bulk detection systems that already exist. And devote more resources and energy to developing better technology for detecting explosives.

Kenneth M. Mead

Former Inspector General of the Department of Transportation at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. Now special counsel at Baker Botts LLP

One issue that strikes me as very important here is we need to be careful not to put in place across-the-board measures that apply to 100 percent of the population, measures that can be of questionable effectiveness anyway, and instead work with the tools that we already have.

In this particular circumstance … there was information available to our security officials, our intelligence officials, that apparently wasn’t enough to trigger attention and I think that we should reflect on why that is.

Over half a million people are on these watch lists, certainly when you get a phone call from a father of someone who is on the watch lists — that should send a signal to Homeland Security and the FBI.

Something went wrong with the existing system that we have in place and it seems to me that without massive deployment of new equipment, this situation could have been prevented with the [intelligence] tools that we now have.

John McLaughlin

Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, Johns Hopkins University. Former Deputy Director for Intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency

The first thing is to be acutely aware that, as this most recent breach of security illustrates, extremists have not given up on using aircraft as weapons. We need to know more facts about this case, but when we do there will undoubtedly be some necessary adjustments to the system.

It would be a mistake to engage in finger pointing or to focus on just one part of the system, such as “watchlisting” of suspicious individuals. We’ll need to look calmly and clinically at the system as a whole — what specific information is entered into various databases and with sort of “triggers” for elevated concern; what happens to that data when it is reviewed by various agencies; how do the various lists relate to the U.S. Visa system; what happens to a person who shows up at an airport and when they go through security screening.

We can probably never eliminate the possibility that some determined extremist will get through any system — they will continue to study it and look for vulnerabilities — but we can continue lowering the odds of their success. This will almost certainly require more stringent measures that many will interpret as too intrusive. We will thus have to revisit an issue we’ve debated many times since 9/11 — where we want that line to be between personal security and personal privacy. Chances are this latest brush with disaster will increase support for measures that enhance the former.